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There Was A Massive Power Outage At The World's Busiest Airport And People Lost It

The definition of a nightmare.

Originally posted on
Updated on

Hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled Sunday after a fire caused a power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, officials said.

All flights canceled after fire causes power outage at Atlanta airport; power to return by midnight… https://t.co/158jQM18bc

The outage, first reported around 1:30 p.m. local time, wreaked havoc on a major US transit hub, leaving thousands of passengers stranded in dark terminals and marooned on the tarmac.

"Georgia Power, which is the facility responsible for the power here at the airport, along with airport officials, are on the scene. We're trying to determine how soon the power will be back on," Andrew Gobeil, the airport's deputy director of policy and communications, told BuzzFeed News Sunday afternoon.

Shortly after, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that it had "put in a ground stop for flights headed to Hartsfield-Jackson," meaning that flights to Atlanta were being held at their departure airports.

By the time power was fully restored, just before midnight, the outage had led to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights to and from Atlanta.

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After several hours of darkness, Georgia Power said it believed that "the issue may have involved a fire which caused extensive damage" to one of the utility's underground electrical facilities.

#Update: Repairs well underway @ATLairport and we expect to have power restored by midnight. #ATLAirport #Atlanta… https://t.co/pdRnu3UTP2

In a press conference Sunday night, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed apologized to the nearly 30,000 people affected by the massive power outage.

"We certainly understand that the outage has caused frustration and anger and we are doing everything that we can to get folks back home right away," he said.

Reed explained that the outage was caused by an electrical fire that erupted in one of the airport's substations, knocking out its main power source as well as its backup system. The strength of the blaze meant the tunnels beneath the airport were filled with flames and fumes, hindering Georgia Power's ability to repair the grid.

"Because of the intensity of the heat, it took approximately one and a half to two hours to make sure the fire was adequately contained," Reed said.

The cause of the fire is not yet known, Georgia Power said in a statement, adding that "no personnel or passengers were in danger at any time."

"Georgia Power has many redundant systems in place to ensure reliability for the Airport and its millions of travelers — power outages affecting the Airport are very rare," the statement said.

Hartsfield-Jackson, a Delta Airlines hub, is the busiest airport in the world, according to the Airports Council International, with more than 2,500 flights and an average of 275,000 passengers every day.

Delta said it had canceled approximately 900 mainline and Delta Connection flights Sunday and diverted 48 flights to other airports, and Southwest Airlines announced just before 5 p.m. Sunday that all of its flights in and out of the Atlanta airport were canceled for the rest of the day.

The outage cut power to the terminals, causing mass disruptions as people tried to figure out what was going on in the dark.

TSA agents carrying wheel chairs up the escalators at the ATL Airport #Respect #ATLANTAairport

Ellen Carmichael was waiting to get off a plane after a Delta flight from Munich to Atlanta around 5 p.m. Sunday when the pilot told passengers it would be a long time before they were allowed deplane.

"We are experiencing a lot of cabin fever," Carmichael told BuzzFeed News, noting that the flight had been over 10 hours long. "There's very restless babies and anxious adults on board trying to figure out what's going on. I mean, no one here expects to make connections; no one here expects to go home."

It's "sort of unbelievable that the world's largest airport would not have a contingency plan for something like this," she added.

When the airport first issued alerts about the outage, many frustrated and impatient people had some ~feelings.~

@ATLairport I'm stuck between escalators with about 100 people and we're not allowed up or down. Please pick up the… https://t.co/1wRiGVHbFz

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Former US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx tweeted that the outage was a "total and abject failure ... there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source."

Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today. I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it.… https://t.co/MFtU2WfYx1

Meanwhile, at the Atlanta airport... @ATLairport #ATL

People shared photos of dark terminals.

What You can't see here is hundreds of people waiting at a completely dark terminal

And unmoving security lines.

BREAKING: Prayers for Millennials with dead cell phones at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport and no way to charge up...… https://t.co/hdn6Nclw1n

#BREAKING Massive power outage reported at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Picture from Brittny Ly… https://t.co/LHLN9YFbYf

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Those apparently affected by the outage shared their experiences waiting for flights or being stuck on planes.

stranded on the plane bc all of ATL is out of power. only a matter of time before i start muttering the lines to th… https://t.co/m49GW6MrLf

They said they had been without food for hours.

@wsbtv @Delta @ATLairport We are still stuck on our plane. No lunch, No dinner. Been stuck in the plane for over… https://t.co/jG5bN9uTEk

@ATLairport It would be cool if the people stuck waiting on their planes could get some water or food. We've been w… https://t.co/P1RQhSU5Hr

"I am about to ask the man in front of me how he feels about feminism," wrote one struggling passenger.

so the entire Atlanta airport lost power and I have been sitting on this plane on the ground for 45 minutes and I t… https://t.co/O4Hsup5rd7

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Power still out at Terminal B Atlanta Airport. Raining. Planes appear to be landing, but held waiting for gates. No… https://t.co/CHHwlkSo7h

Atlanta airport doesn't have power. I'm trapped on the runway, I'm hungry, and slightly buzzed..... Send help!!!

In response, the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Department of Public Safety sent extra officers to help with crowds and traffic.

The state has been in constant contact with airport and other officials. We are sending 2 Initial Response Teams co… https://t.co/9WFrMc7VIn

The FAA also said that it was retaining normal staffing levels at the airport, and would be ready to get flights back up and running as soon as the power was restored.

Update: #FAA will retain normal staffing in the Air Traffic Control Tower at @ATLairport throughout the night. Air… https://t.co/sAvdbzQMui

The City of Atlanta opened up the Georgia International Convention Center to house stranded passengers, along with offering some free food from Chick-fil-A, allowing people to evacuate the airport and prevent overcrowding.

The City of Atlanta has mobilized the Georgia International Convention Center and will provide shuttle services for… https://t.co/BSAMXN8Fb5

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Even as power began to come back on in parts of the airport, however, some passengers, including Carmichael, were still waiting to deplane from flights that had landed hours earlier.

Hour 5 begins and @delta hands out pretzels for first time to the sound of crying babies.

And some stranded travelers reported that officials were slow to relay information to people in the airport. CNN reporter Betsy Klein, who was stuck on a plane for nearly seven hours, tweeted that inside the terminals it was "totally unclear who, if anyone, was in charge."

The most frustrating part is that in my walk across two terminals, it was totally unclear who, if anyone, was in ch… https://t.co/vQubf8pvrE

The most frustrating part is that in my walk across two terminals, it was totally unclear who, if anyone, was in ch… https://t.co/vQubf8pvrE

The incident wasn't without its amusing moments, however. One Instagram user who witnessed the outage said airport staff could be seen sliding down escalator medians to help people.

Instagram: @sarahmanleyy

By midnight, the power was back on, and officials were working to provide relief to travelers and bring back a semblance of normality to the airport.

LIGHTS ON and delivering food and water to our passengers! Thank you @dancathy with @ChickfilA for opening on a SUN… https://t.co/B92FAKjEjv

Remy Smidt is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Remy Smidt at remy.smidt@buzzfeed.com.

Brianna Sacks is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Brianna Sacks at brianna.sacks@buzzfeed.com.

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